Faith in History: a faith for both Christians and Marxists

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by Neil Godfrey

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . . (p. 402 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.)

Dominican priest Roland de Vaux of Dead Sea Scroll fame or infamy, wrote that if the historical faith of Israel is not founded in history, then that faith is in error, and our faith is also (“et la notre aussi.”)

Biblical archaeologist George Ernest Wright wrote:

In biblical faith everything depends upon whether the central events actually occurred. . . . To assume that it makes no difference whether they are facts of not is simply to destroy the whole basis of faith.

Thomas L. Thompson (from whom I have taken these references to de Vaux and Wright) aptly notes (my emphasis throughout):

Indeed, it soon becomes clear, it is not ultimately in the Bible that this “biblical faith” is grounded, but in the events of history, and in the Bible only insofar as the Bible retells historical events.

Is not this a rather wry reminder of Marxism’s faith or belief in history?

Is not the fundamental difference between the two, then, merely the interpretation of history?

TLT continues:

This neo-orthodoxy is by no means a “biblicism” or a “fundamentalism” as it is often accused of being. In fact, there is very little room for any theology of the word. It is rather a deistic and positivistic historicism, which searches in its construction of a “biblical history” — to be found neither in the Bible nor in history — for the “real revelation” which could be learned if only the events which lie behind the biblical stories could be discovered. (p. 327 of The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives).

The faith-less TLT has some sage advice for the faith-full:

If we seriously affirm a “biblical faith”, then it must be from the Bible that we begin to understand what that faith ought to be. And if it is true that the Bible does not speak about an historical Abraham, then a recognition of this leads us one step further towards an understanding of biblical faith. To learn that what we have believed is not what we should have believed is not to lose our faith. (p. 328)

That last sentence only works for those who have placed their faith in something other than what they can see and analyze on earth.

I suggest that “an historical Abraham” in the above can be replaced by “an historical Jesus”, too. That is what Scwheitzer seems to have been urging in the quotation at the beginning of this post.

The Gospel of Mark is redolent with metaphor. The tomb of Jesus itself, said to have been “hewn out of rock”, is taken from Isaiah’s metaphor for the Temple:

What are you doing here and who gave you permission
to cut out a grave for yourself here,
hewing your grave on the height
and chiseling your resting place in the rock? (Isaiah 22:16)

Isaiah has God say he is about to destroy this Temple. There are many suggestions throughout Mark’s Gospel that its Jesus is also a metaphor for the new Israel that has replaced the old that was destroyed by the Romans. Very little in Mark’s narrative makes sense as history or realistic biography, but it is charged with a powerful message as a spiritual parable. Every reader can appreciate the metaphors implicit in the wilderness and mountain top scenes, the miracles of stilling the storm and walking on water, the blind being ciphers for the spiritually blind.

Profane and Sacred Scholars See Eye to Eye

Thompson observes that theologians see divine revelation “as the historical event itself”, and not in a word or an existential experience and reunderstanding one’s identity and place.

The theological orientation is toward the past; for it is the events of the past which are seen as authentication of the present belief.

It is hardly accidental that this view of Christianity, while patterning itself on the biblical view of history, does not see the Bible itself as constitutive of faith. Such a theological structure creates serious difficulties for Christian faith, if only because it makes great demands on the credulity of Christians. (pp. 329-30)

Here Thompson is repeating the admonition of Albert Schweitzer.

Yielding to History, Playing False with History

This has meant crunch time for those whose faith in the resurrection hangs on the historical promises to Abraham and David. If archaeological work exposes the nonexistence of Abraham and David . . . .

Moreover, by presenting the faith of Israel [or the faith of Christianity] as history, they demand for it a legitimation according to the norms  of historical criticism. In maintaining that the history of Israel is the revelation to Israel, they have given to historical disciplines the ultimate competence to decide what is and what is not revealed among the biblical traditions. The rejection of the historicity of large parts of the Old Testament, thought by them to be historical, is understood as a challenge to faith because it challenges their identification of revelation with event. (p. 330)

One could just as truly write the same of the New Testament and the Gospel narratives, and the parenthetical note above is mine.

New Testament or Historical Jesus scholars are anxious to assert that they use the same methods as used for secular historical inquiries, but concede that those methods are “adapted” for the special requirements of biblical studies. I have attempted to demonstrate many times (beginning here) from various angles that the methods of historical inquiry employed by Historical Jesus scholars are not like those of secular history. Historians of other ancient times and persons investigate topics for which there is secure evidence, external or corroborating controls on the evidence, for certain things that happened and individual actors who existed. Historical Jesus scholars have no consensus on the what Jesus was, said or did because there is no external controlling evidence to give them a secure grounding from which to examine the life of Jesus.

Historical Jesus scholars begin with the assumption that there was a historical Jesus to study. I have shown this is so in the case of several scholars, including E.P. Sanders, and will do so again in future posts on Maurice Casey. Pointing out the circularity of their methods on this blog has elicited abuse, but not reasoned counter-argument or explanation, from two such scholars who write as historians. Such a response is itself suggestive that it is something irrational that has been offended.

Who loses? Who wins?

It is not only a Christian’s faith in history that is threatened by the testable facts and probabilities of history. Jesus Christ is, of course, a major cultural icon and medium for many of our most cherished values. I recall my father objecting to hearing a news report that it was discovered Winston Churchill did not deliver all his famous radio speeches personally but sometimes hired an actor to do them for him. Some historical memories are treasures we never want to lose.

What if the New Testament Gospels were written originally in the same manner and for the same purposes as the Old Testament stories of creation, Abraham and the patriarchs? It is relatively easy to see that the authors of the stories of Abraham did not write them as genuine historical records — or at least it is easy once it is pointed out that they presuppose the existence of a geo-political establishment in the Middle East that did not exist until many centuries after Abraham was supposed to have lived.

But the stories about the promise given to the patriarchs in Genesis are not historical, nor do they intend to be historical; they are rather historically determined expressions about Israel and Israel’s relationship to its God, given in forms legitimate to their time, and their truth lies not in their facticity, nor in their historicity, but in their ability to express the reality that Israel experienced. (p. 330)

How close so many scholars have come to writing something very similar about the first gospel written, that of Mark! It has often been described as a document for Christians undergoing persecution, and its Jesus is their model for their experience. It is only a small step to seeing the entire narrative as a metaphor for the “new Israel” from its inception.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Faith in History: a faith for both Christians and Marxists”

  1. A small quibble, ” If archaeological work exposes the nonexistence of Abraham and David . . . .” I think this is beyond the reach of archeology. My reason for believing Abraham is non-existent has to do with my understanding of literature and the nature of remembrance. Not many people can tell you what their ancestor was doing 500 years ago and we live in a literate age. Theoretical there were people named Abraham who wandered with their herds 300 years ago from whom some Jews are descended from, but any resemblance between their life and the patriarchs are purely coincidental. Archeology can demonstrate that David was not the ruler of an empire, but not that he did not exist, again that would be more dependent on literary criticism. Archeology is only one tool in a historians kit. No one needs to wait for an archaeologist to find the bodies of 50,000 Roman soldiers pierced by Iranian arrows in the desert to discus the battle of Carrhae.

  2. Yes, archaeology exposes the anachronisms and implausibilities in the narratives as we have them. Literary form is also important for understanding the intent, purpose and function of the narratives. This is what Maurice Casey, James Crossley and so many others overlook (and what our theologian nonhistorian friend James McGrath insists is irrelevant, for what that is worth).

    Thompson used both to demonstrate the nonhistoricity of Abraham.

    I’m itching for a chance to discuss Gospel genre and its relevance for historicity of the narrative.

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